SALONS. The salon was a venue for intellectual sociability that took form in the seventeenth century and flourished in the eighteenth but only acquired its name in the nineteenth, after it had been supplanted at the heart of the world of letters and ideas by more democratic, masculine, and politically oriented institutions. In the seventeenth century the gatherings later classified as salons were called ruelles (after the corridor beside the bed on which the hostess received her guests) or réduits (alcoves) or, as would be most common in the eighteenth century, were referred to simply by the day of the week on which they took place: Mademoiselle de Scudéry had her "Saturdays," Madame Geoffrin her "Mondays," and so on.
Those assemblies recognized in retrospect as "salons" differed from other forms of social and intellectual exchange in well-recognized ways: by gathering intellectuals and socially prominent men and women on a regular basis in a woman's home for conversational exchanges on issues of mutual interest. But the fact that this venue for intellectual sociability lacked a name during the period when its importance was most evident and its influence strongest suggests some of the ambiguities attached to this unofficial social form.
Which among the assemblies that aspired to offer both pleasure and instruction should be considered salons? At what point did an assembly veer so far toward gaiety in one direction or high-mindedness in the other as to blur the boundaries with parties at one extreme or professional meetings at the other? How widespread was the phenomenon? Relatively few of these assemblies managed enough longevity and appeal to be truly important, but how many other salons or would-be salons met briefly or in obscurity, and to what effect? A salon was easy to establish—there being no formal prerequisites to meet or permissions to acquire—yet difficult to pull off. What blend of ingredients—the intangibles of the hostess's personality and the participants' chemistry, the tangible patronage available to be dispensed there—made for success? Though it was by definition hosted by a woman in her private quarters, how central or marginal was the salonnière (another term of nineteenth-century invention) to its intellectual pursuits? As in any leisure entertainment, the hostess was understood to direct her guests' activities, yet the serious business of the evening turned, as did the meetings of academies and male coteries, on the attending men of letters who were her guests. It might even turn on the husband in the late eighteenth century, when several salons were led by a married couple (Condorcet, Helvétius, Suard), though the fact that the masculine construction salonnier was never coined implies the continuing identification of the venue with its female host.
Salons flourished in France, especially in Paris, but they could also be found in the French provinces and elsewhere in Europe, notably in Berlin. For antecedents one can point in the sixteenth century to intellectual coteries surrounding Marguerite de Navarre and other learned women at the French court as well as to occasional urban literary circles such as the one held in Poitiers by Madeleine and Catherine des Roches. But the first fully developed salon is generally held to be that founded by Catherine de Vivonne, marquise de Rambouillet, in the 1630s at her home, the Hôtel de Rambouillet, in Paris. In her chambre bleue she orchestrated light entertainments, poetry readings, serious discussions, even dramatic productions.
Later in the seventeenth century, influential venues that likewise centered their sociability on literary pursuits were established by such talented women as Mademoiselle de Scudéry, Madame de La Fayette, Mademoiselle de Montpensier, Madame de La Suze, Madame de Sablé, and Ninon de Lenclos. Writers including La Rochefoucauld, Paul Pellisson, Gilles Ménage, Charles Perrault, and Charles de Saint-Évremond offered up their own works in these salons, and amateurs among the gens de bonne compagnie, men and women alike, tried their hand at composing literary pieces, often as a collective activity. Several original genres emerged in the salon to shape the development of French literature generally: the word portrait that was so influential in creating a new language of emotions and character psychology, précieuses verses and allegories (such as Mademoiselle de Scudéry's Carte de Tendre ) that enriched the French language with new concepts and purged it of old usages, neochivalric romances, and other brief fictional narratives that evolved into the modern novel.
The participation of women in these early salons reflected the vast expansion of the literary field effected by the new print capitalism. Women probably accounted for at least an equal proportion of the increase in readers and writers over the course of the century. As a cultural venue sharply divergent from the masculine world of humanist erudition, the salon seemed to promise that men and women would advance side by side as creators and interpreters of modern literature. Late in the century, however, as the literary field coalesced once again in a hierarchical and masculine structure, women were increasingly steered into minor genres (occasional poems, fairy tales) and into marginal roles as consumers rather than producers of culture, inspirations to creativity rather than the inspired.
The prominence of literary pursuits in the early salons has led some to see them, quite incorrectly, as apolitical and as distinguishable on those grounds from the overtly politically oriented salons of the eighteenth century. These early salons were deeply, though subtly, political in original ways. Intertwined with the new literary genres they pioneered, seventeenth-century salons incubated a discourse of innovative ideas—honnêteté, meritocracy, and feminism—that acknowledged and celebrated the distinctive kind of community they constituted and the transformations in social practice being effected by the dynamics of salon society. Both this discourse and those dynamics would have far-reaching consequences on social organization in the longer term. This tripartite discourse was political in the sense not of formal politics but of asserting claims about power relationships in the salons where they were articulated and, by extension, in the world of absolutist authority in which salons dwelt.
The ideal of honnêteté, 'politesse', prescribed a model of sociable behavior (moeurs) that was refined, orderly, moderated, lofty in spirit but (unlike family, state, and corporate society) nonhierarchical. Its quintessential discursive practice was reciprocal conversation among equals rather than disquisition or prescription by superiors. In the case of the honnête homme or the honnête femme, disciplined behavior emanated from inward character rather than being imposed by external constraint.
Within salons ruled by honnêteté, character and manners were said to count more than the criteria of social status operative in Old Regime corporate society. The person of whatever rank or lineage whose personal and intellectual qualities (his or her "merit") were pleasing in company was preferred to the person of even the loftiest birth but rough manners. This evocation of meritocracy expressed a reality of salon life. The women who hosted salons, as well as the men and women who attended them, might come from traditionally dominant noble families, but just as often they were recently ennobled or non-nobles who were distinguished for their wealth or wit. By mixing individuals of varied statuses, salons fostered a new pattern of egalitarian relations within the very heart of hierarchical society. Salons, then, provided a way for aristocratic society to absorb newly powerful individuals and families into the Old Regime elite without over-turning established hierarchy.
A third discourse emerging from the very nature of the salon reimagined gender difference in ways that contested received notions of hierarchy between women and men, feminine and masculine. Some salon writings claimed that observable differences between men's and women's behavior were not innate or "essential" but merely socially prescribed, the effect of "custom." Others accepted gender differences as "natural" but deemed them complementary in ways that advantaged women. Either way, women were seen as suited for spheres of activity broader than household and family.
Again, this discourse expressed a reality of salon life, for the salon was the one intellectual space to which women were admitted and in which they might exercise informal cultural authority. There, they read and wrote, voiced their judgments, granted or refused patronage to men and women of letters, contributed orally and through letter writing to networks of opinion. Women's authority in salons was most commonly grounded in a gendered sense that feminine qualities—sensibility, delicacy, and intuition—grasped the rules of polite conversation and reciprocity better than masculine reason and so could insulate intellectual sociability from practices of contestation that structured male domains (intellectual and military).
The prominence of women in salons, however, generated tension within the world of letters and sociability about the part women should play in society and culture. It made women vulnerable to insult or mockery, wrath or scorn from those who decried the three revisionary salon discourses and their revisionary social underpinnings. From Molière's Les précieuses ridicules (1659) through Nicolas Boileau's "Satire on Women" (1694) to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Émile (1762), commentators denounced women who aspired to cultural authority as agents of corruption in the literary world, in society, and in their neglected families.
The renowned salons of the eighteenth century adapted the main structuring features of the early salons to evolving intellectual, social and political contexts. There were still salons, such as Madame de La Ferté-Imbault's, that played rhetorical and chivalric games. But as Enlightenment thought developed its critical edge, as the philosophes set out (in the words of the Encyclopédie ) "to change the common way of thinking," discussions in salons turned critical as well. The marquise de Lambert, Madame Geoffrin, Julie de Lespinasse, Madame Du Deffand, Madame Necker, and Madame d'Epinay hosted centers where disparate philosophes could form an intellectual community with one another as well as a community of discourse and manners with persons of education and power. In salon conversations, reformist ideas were introduced, reshaped, and disseminated to those who might enhance them in theory or apply them in practice.
The ties between the Enlightenment and salons far transcended the mere presence of philosophes in them: new visions of society diffused by the Enlightenment bore the imprint of the sociable norms and social dynamics that lay at the heart of salon society from its beginnings. The salon norm of honnêteté and moderated exchanges of views broadened into a claim that civil society ought to conform to the practices and norms of sociability and that societies should be judged by the refinement of their moeurs, their "civilization." The meritocratic and universalistic rhetoric of the salons ripened into a new vision of social relations as egalitarian rather than hierarchical or corporate. In the privacy of the salon, outside the political space defined by absolutism, a reconfigured "public" learned to form and express opinions on political matters. In short, the salon emerged in the eighteenth century as one of the institutions of the "public sphere" that prepared a new kind of political participation for an expanded elite.
Enlightenment salons continued to serve as places where women could educate themselves, participate in literary and intellectual life, and form networks of friendship and correspondence. The character of salons as women's networks became particularly salient in the salonnière-protégée networks that abounded there. Madame de Tencin initiated Madame Geoffrin, who trained both her own daughter, Madame de la Ferté-Imbault, and Madame Necker; the last apprenticed her own daughter, Germaine Necker, later to gain fame as the Romantic writer Madame de Staël. Yet one of the puzzles about salons as women's institutions is the fact that whereas the ideals of sociability ("fraternity") and social egalitarianism would be enshrined by the Revolution, neither gender equality nor the participation of women in the public political sphere would accompany those other major features of salons into the new social order.
The need to explain why women's roles in salons did not translate into rights of citizenship in the modern liberal state continues to prompt reexaminations of salon history: the extent to which the roles women played in salons were integral to the formation of opinion; how notions of gender difference, upon which women's authority in salons had rested, came to justify exclusion of women from modern politics; whether salons, despite their independence from absolutism's political space and despite their egalitarian rhetoric, were yet institutions bred by and limited to aristocratic forms of society that, like salons, fell to the margins as the eighteenth century came to an end. Such issues make the history of salons important for understanding both the Old Regime and the origins of modernity.
See also Enlightenment ; Feminism ; Geoffrin, Marie-Thérèse ; Holbach, Paul Thiry, baron d' ; La Fayette, Marie-Madeleine de ; La Rochefoucauld, François, duc de ; Marguerite de Navarre ; Perrault, Charles ; Philosophes ; Scudéry, Madeleine de ; Sévigné, Marie de ; Women .
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Carolyn C. Lougee
"Salons." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 12, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/salons
"Salons." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Retrieved March 12, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/salons
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